Sunday 22 September 2019

Neil Francis: 'Saturday's match was won by a team who may just time their run to perfection'

7 September 2019; Dan Biggar of Wales is tackled by Robbie Henshaw of Ireland, left, and Rob Kearney during the Guinness Summer Series match between Ireland and Wales at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
7 September 2019; Dan Biggar of Wales is tackled by Robbie Henshaw of Ireland, left, and Rob Kearney during the Guinness Summer Series match between Ireland and Wales at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

In Only Fools And Horses, Trigger claimed to have had the same broom for 20 years, even though it had 17 new heads and 14 new handles. This was the modern-day play on Theseus’s ship.

The brooms I have which have been supplied by my local DIY are a little bit different. The bristles in the head are barely used and I haven't quite managed to break a handle with the sweat of my brow. What does for the brush is the little nail that holds the head and the handle together. Both pieces are in perfect condition but unusable because the nail is virtually impossible to hammer back in. You have to bin both pieces and buy another one.

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In the 29th minute of Saturday's final World Cup warm-up game, Ireland eventually won a lineout. The crowd applauded a simple fundamental in the game of rugby. It’s like cheering when the bus stops at the bus stop. The thing though was that Ireland had lost their previous two lineouts, snaffled expertly by Justin Tipuric and Alun Wyn Jones.

It was going to be another one of those days where the lineout just didn't function and the nail holding the precarious broom head and handle together was going to cost Ireland again.

The applause was just about tailing off when Johnny Sexton threw a pass directly into Dan Biggar, who had read the play. I guess the pass could be called the opposite of a no-look pass because Sexton could see exactly where he wanted to put the ball. With the head start he got, Biggar should really have scored. If it had been Rhys Patchell, who does actually have a bit of gas, the Welsh would have got the five-pointer.

What happened next gave you an indication of where Ireland were. Keith Earls, who would have been the quickest of the chasers, made his play too early and missed his tackle. Robbie Henshaw, as is his wont, would have chased Biggar all the way back to the RDS.

The tackle was a fantastic physical manoeuvre and he stopped Biggar two metres before the line but managed to place his feet as anchors into the turf and the Welshman was not able to simply roll over and dot the ball down. Rob Kearney slid in brilliantly and prevented a permitted second movement.

Warm-up matches — let's not kid ourselves — are important and in this regard Ireland's body language gave you an idea of where they were mentally. Ireland's non-verbal communication, physical behaviour and mental gestures were what forged this victory. Wales scored from the resulting scrum but there would be no Italian traffic cops in full regalia as there was in Twickenham.

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Ireland out-defended Wales, which on the evidence of the Six Nations was a difficult thing to do. It is in attack where we have the questions.

Back to Trigger's broom. Ireland have great lineout jumpers and effective pods and a reasonable amount of imagination in terms of getting men free and into the air . . . but that little nail? They got value from the nail because Ireland won every single last one of their lineouts thereafter. The coach, as we know at this stage, plays an ascetic and prescriptive form of the game. His team play a game of stuttering continuity.

The ability to recycle is key. Ireland have many effective ball-carriers and their clean-out is good but if they want to advance in the World Cup they have to deal with the power sides and if you don’t have a power game you will need quick ball at ruck time. If 10 per cent of the ball that Conor Murray fished out of the breakdown could be classified as quick well that would be the extent of it.

It is true that Wales are a pain in the ass at the breakdown and they have taken to adapting to Maro Itoje's nuisance value style at the breakdown. Wales are seagulls and scavengers at the tackle scene and it is incredible how many times their primary tackler — while in the act of rolling away, rolls away on to the opposition's side of the ball — in front of Conor Murray principally.

Murray looked like somebody who was trying to delicately remove a caterpillar from his salad with a fork and quite often the speed of the ball which looked likely to be of value when the ball-carrier went to ground just turned out to be more monotonously slow ball of little value.

That little nail again. If you can’t generate quick ball with good ball-carriers or a forceful clear-out crew in every five recycles, you will not beat the best sides in the world. We harp on about the lineout but if Joe Schmidt's side want to progress in the World Cup they will have to play the quick ball game against the power sides and they will have to do far better against the sides who can generate quick ball, particularly New Zealand who are the masters.

Ireland held back in their aerial attack and did not post too much ball into the air and when they did they came off second best with the Welsh through Halfpenny, North and Biggar claiming most of the chase-able ball in the air.

This was a match of brutal functionality and it was won by a team who may just time their run to perfection. The excellence — comparative and absolute — of the high watermark of last November is still a long way away but on the basis of their performance Ireland should have too much for Scotland in two weeks' time and by that stage they will know after New Zealand and South Africa play each other whether it is power or quick ball that they will have to contend with and counter with a greater degree of proficiency than they have shown this year.

Yesterday was more than baby steps towards that goal and Ireland, as we now know, play far better when they are not crippled or beguiled by anxiety or self-doubt.

Ireland are a viable proposition.

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